The vexing problem of movies adapted from the work of the iconic pulp horror writer H.P. Lovecraft is by no means news. The man's go-to writing tic was "and then I saw something that defied both physics and optics, and just thinking about describing its appearance would surely cost me the final thread of my sanity", which is hardly conducive to translation into a visual medium. And when he could describe the things that were so ungodly terrifying to him, they were generally common New England architectural features, or the fact that there are ethnic groups other than Rhode Island WASPs. Nobody has come closer to cracking it than director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna did when they made the great Re-Animator in 1985, by A) picking a relatively unpopular source story that was unpopular because, B) it wasn't very good, and C) basically chucking all of it out and just starting with the concept.

None of A, B, or C apply to Color Out of Space, an adaptation of one of Lovecraft's best and best-known stories (it might, indeed, be my favorite thing he ever wrote), and which tries for the most part to do right by its source material, other than pulling the action up to the present day (a much looser adaptation came out in 1965, as Die, Monster, Die!). This despite having possibly the most impossible-to-visualise horrors in a career that made those into a stereotype. As you might be able to guess just from the title, this is the tale of an extraterrestrial color that cannot possibly be imagined. So, like, go make a movie out of that.

What director Richard Stanley (breaking out of director jail almost a quarter of a century after being fired from the production of 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau) and the members of his design team have come up with is: hot pink. Sometimes tinged with a kind of moldy blue. And hey, when I read "The Colour Out of Space" for the first time, what I had in my mind was basically neon purple, which isn't all that different. That's the trap, after all: you can't imagine an unimaginable color. Which means you definitely can't portray it in a movie, and the filmmakers here have laid in a good number of escape routes to save themselves from having to do so. The first one is figure out what they can depict that's scary, or moody, or atmospheric, and go  with that. And indeed, Color Out of Space is just plain lousy with thick atmosphere, generated mostly from Katie Byron's claustrophobic production design, and Steve Annis's contrasty cinematography thereof. It also makes good use of an indulgent 111-minute running time, which seems to exist mostly to facilitate a long opening half that keeps trotting out different ways of filling us with a sense of foreboding, showing things going awry in small and odd ways, then spiking that with something big and robust and grotesque, then going for something chilly and subtle and present only in the silences between actors, and so on. After all, a cosmic horror story is still a horror story, that that means the usual horror tricks will work. There just needs to be something added to them.

"Something", in this case, takes the form of some very noticeable color correction, which is the first of the movie's bold gambles, and the one that pays off the best. In order to get at the sense of a world that is starting to go wrong - oh, so basically what happens, the color rides to Earth in the form of a meteor, crashing in a farmyard a bit outside of Arkham, Massachusetts; it proceeds to act basically like a '50s B-movie nuclear waste spill, ruining the land and horribly mutating all of the animal life that lives there. Including, unfortunately for them, the humans - as I was saying, in order to get at this sense of wrong-ness, the film starts to introduce really strange, pointedly artificial color correction. Generally moving in the direction of pink, but not always; there's an extraordinarily striking and quietly unnerving scene of driving at night where the yellow beams of a car's headlights and the blue of a moonlit night are both cranked up too hard, especially the blue. It does a terrific job of making it seem like color - like, color as a physical quality - is actually somehow separate from the objects that possess that color, not that it's floating on them, but that it exists somewhere else that's right the sameplace. Basically, it's what shitty color correction looks like. But clearly shitty on purpose, and that's the gamble.

It pays off in this case. If Color Out of Space does just one thing absolutely right, it's to create a hazy sense of itchy otherworldliness cohabiting with the quotidian space of a rundown farm (it is, as I think of it, very much like the bargain-bin version of Annihilation, and it even withstands the comparison). And it does not do just one thing right. It does three. One of the others is Colin Stetson's score, which shifts somewhat unpredictably from just humming along as generic suspense filler in the background to aggressively shoving us in the back when the imagery pops up to shock us in front. That's the third thing: the film is superlatively gory, with elaborate practical monster effects that, like the color, almost feel more disturbing because they don't actually seem realistic. They're Uncanny Valley material, which is another one of the film's strategies: since it can't depict things that are beyond depiction, it can at least be consantly, uncomfortably uncanny. Or, in some of the wetter, more perverse body horror moments, nastily and repulsively uncanny.

There is perhaps a fourth thing, though he exists outside of Good and Bad. The film stars Nicolas Cage, who has clearly been asked to Mandy it up, and he obliges (the films share a production company, SpectreVision, and it is extremely clear that "we need this year's Mandy" was part of the calculation in a lot of this film's creative choices). For much of the running time, Cage's Nathan Gardner is just a schlubby man on the declining side of middle age, forcibly cheerful and bland; for the rest, he's being turned into a nightmare version of his own hated father, which Cage embodies with an indescribable, inexplicable accent that feels like he was trying to think of what a nasal snake might talk like. He lunges, he glares, he bares his teeth, and does all the things Nicolas Cage does when he's in Full Camp mode; but he is relatively sparing with it. Even his cheerful blandness is hammy, but it's a different kind of hammy, one that grounds the film in B-horror cheesiness, and while I'm not sure that anything else in the filmmaking supports this, it's certainly bringing something interesting and good to the proceedings.

As for everything else, well, four things is a lot of success for a Lovecraft adaptation. And some of it I just feel bad even bringing up, like the crap CGI: it's a low-budget film, it's going to have crap CGI. And the filmmakers know enough to hide it: the single worst effect, an angry mutant cat, only shows up in decent lighting for less than a full second of screentime. But there are some pretty lousy effects that get a lot more loving attention than that.

More actively detrimental to the film's success are the non-Cage actors. Color Out of Space is initially fashioned as a family drama - the specifics, which are expressed in some effortful detail, don't matter really, since it's all about setting us up to feel horrible as the family members start to turn into dangerous, monstrous versions of themselves - and this is a problem when the family doesn't congeal. Joely Richardson, playing Nathan's wife Theresa, a recent cancer survivor, is fine, if uninspired (she's only actively interesting when she's playing the color-possessed version of herself), but the three actors playing their children - Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, and Julian Hilliard, in descending age order - are all frankly awful, and Arthur has to bear more of the narrative than anybody other than Cage. It's good for the film that it's so good at slathering a menacing aura over everything, because it always remains moody and foreboding even when those three are squawking their lines out; given how much this incarnation of Color Out of Space wants to make the destruction of its central family tragic and upsetting, and not simply the matter of mysterious horror, having an unconvincing and unlikable family ought to be fatal, but here it merely comes across as an unaddressed weakness.